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2005-03-16

Justice DeLayed? Ethics Controversy Swirls Around House Majority Leader

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House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX)–one of the most powerful members in Congress and a prolific fundraiser for his party–is again under fire for potential ethics violations. We host a debate with Chellie Pingree of Common Cause and Stephen Moore of the Free Enterprise Fund. [includes rush transcript]

House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, is–again–under fire for potential ethics violations. Congressman Delay is one of the most powerful members in Congress and a prolific fundraiser for his party. Last year, the Texas Republican was admonished three times by the House Ethics Committee–once for what they labeled as "inappropriate behavior"–for trying to influence a House member’s vote.

In the past few weeks, other allegations have surfaced. These include a Justice Department and Senate committee investigation into whether a group of Republican lobbyists–who are close to DeLay–provided trips abroad for Delay, his wife, and other Republican lawmakers to influence legislation.

A 2001 trip that Delay made to South Korea was paid for by an organization registered as a foreign agent. House rules prohibit a foreign principal or lobbyist from paying the travel expenses of House members.

Also, The National Journal revealed evidence, which showed that Congressman DeLay illegally accepted money for travel expenses from Jack Abramoff. Abramoff is a GOP lobbyist who is himself under investigation for billing $82 million dollars in lobbyist services to Indian tribes. At the same time–in Texas–a local grand jury has indicted two of DeLay’s political associates on charges involving illegal campaign contributions. The New York Times recently reported that Delay was actively involved in raising money for the political committee, which is the focus of this on-going investigation.

Delay has continually denied any wrongdoing. Speaking at a weekly session with reporters he said, "With all the partisan politics of personal destruction that the Democrats have announced and have carried through on, I have yet to be found breaking any House rules. It is very unfortunate that the Democrats have no agenda. All they can do is try to tear down the House and burn it down in order to gain power."

  • Chellie Pingree, president and CEO of Common Cause, a national non-partisan advocacy organization.
  • Stephen Moore, President of the Free Enterprise Fund. Moore has known Delay for 20 years. He previously was the Cato Institute’s Director of Fiscal Policy Studies, and continues to serve as a Cato Senior Fellow.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk further about Tom DeLay, we’re joined in Washington by two guests. Chellie Pingree is with us, the president of Common Cause; and Stephen Moore, president of the Freedom Fund Institute. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

CHELLIE PINGREE: Thank you.

STEPHEN MOORE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to start with Chellie Pingree of Common Cause. Can you lay out what the allegations are against Tom DeLay?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, actually, I think you have done a very good job of talking about what the current concerns are, both the golfing trip to Scotland and the close ties to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is also being investigated, and the South Korea trip, which perhaps was paid for by a foreign agent, which would have been illegal. And one of the enormous challenges right now is — kind of the irony here is the Republican leadership of the House, including the extremely powerful majority leader, have basically dismantled the ethics process. And years ago they stopped the opportunity for outside groups such as Common Cause, which routinely filed ethics complaints with the commission. They took away our ability to do that, so the only people who can police them are the Ethics Committee, and because they have dismantled this committee, the majority leader can’t even go in front of them now to find out if there are ethics violations or not. So there’s actually no way to currently investigate this, except for a Justice Department or outside criminal investigation. So, there’s sort of an irony here. Here you have these very complicated questions being asked about the ties both to the two things you mentioned, and then the continuing investigation of TRMPAC, which the Ethics Commission earlier, when it was still functioning, decided to set aside waiting to see if there were indictments in that case. So there’s actually nowhere to go to resolve these issues, and yesterday, you had the Majority Leader Tom DeLay, coming forward and saying, sure, I’d like to have these looked into, and prove that they have done nothing wrong, but in fact, they’ve fired the Chair of the Commission. They took away two members of the Ethics Committee. They got rid of senior staff, one of whom had been there almost 20 years. And there is no functioning body to investigate this.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Moore, president of Freedom Fund Institute, respond.

STEPHEN MOORE: It’s the Free Enterprise Fund. Thank you for having me. I have known Tom DeLay for 20 years. I think he’s one of the most honorable and honest men I have known in politics, and I have known a lot of politicians over the last two decades. I think that this is an orchestrated smear campaign against Tom DeLay. It’s being orchestrated by liberal groups who do not agree at all with Tom DeLay’s conservative agenda, groups like Common Cause and many of the liberal media, including The Washington Post and The New York Times have a vendetta, I believe, against Tom DeLay. And I think that what’s important for your listeners and viewers to understand is that Tom DeLay is an extremely effective leader of the House. Some people think he’s the most — the strongest leader in 50 years in the House. He’s also a strong conservative, and he promotes a very strong social and economic conservative agenda. That’s one of the reasons that liberals, I think, have their claws out for him. And he’s right, that he has not been convicted or proven to be in violation of any House rules yet, and yet you’ve got a lot people who want to throw him out, just based on allegations.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for example, what about the 2001 trip that DeLay took to South Korea, paid for by an organization registered as a foreign agent, which is against House rules?

STEPHEN MOORE: Right. Well, in that instance, I have talked to DeLay’s staff on that particular allegation, and they basically say that there was a third party, a 501c3 organization which had basically said that it was going to pay for the trip. And so, if there was any error here in terms of who paid for the trip, number one, it was inadvertent error, and number two, it was contrary to Tom DeLay’s knowledge and what he had been told. Again, I think if there was a mistake made here, which there may have been, it wasn’t Tom DeLay’s fault. It was the fault of this third party organization, which was supposed to be paying for the trip.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the National Journal revelations that showed DeLay illegally accepted money for travel expenses from Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist, who is also himself under investigation?

STEPHEN MOORE: That allegation is simply untrue; that DeLay never received any payments from Jack Abramoff. You know, you’ve seen all of these allegations that have been made. I mean, my goodness, one of the allegations that was made against DeLay — just so people can realize how foolish some of these are and unfair they are — one was that he illegally profited from a charitable event that he held. Tom’s number one interest in terms of philanthropy is foster care. And he had a very large fundraiser in New York at the New York Convention and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for foster care, and then liberal groups come along and say, well, you benefited yourself from this, you got lobbyists to pay for it. I think some of the charges are just really over the top.

AMY GOODMAN: Chellie Pingree can you explain the whole Jack Abramoff controversy and how it ties to Tom DeLay?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, again, there is an investigation ongoing of Jack Abramoff, who’s accused of basically bilking Indian tribes of millions of dollars and then handing much of that out in political money. Both Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Scanlon are close political allies of Majority Leader DeLay, and Mr. Scanlon was a former press secretary. So, these are not sort of distant, you know, "see you down the hall" relationships. These are people who have been very close over time, and again, there still are allegations that this trip to Scotland, a golf trip, where first there was a visit to a think tank, and then there was a visit to a golf trip. A lot of money was spent, and perhaps Majority Leader DeLay can explain what kind of congressional work was going on on the golf trip, but I think that is something he has to explain to people. There are also allegations of a reimbursement of these expenses through Jack Abramoff, and again, these get into some of the technical details of the ethics process, but nobody believes that when you are a member of Congress, an elected official, and as Stephen has said, a very high and powerful elected official, that either you or your staff don’t have the responsibility to know both who is paying for the trips and whether they’re legitimate. No one in politics is allowed to get away with saying, "I didn’t know." There is no don’t ask, don’t tell policy here. This is your responsibility to know. And again, as you mentioned earlier, the Ethics Committee last fall admonished Congressman DeLay for three violations, one of which you mentioned, one was trading influence on the Energy Bill, one was misuse of the FAA around the whole question about the legislators in Texas who left the state over the redistricting issue. One was the question about a potential bribe on the floor around Medicare. These are a long term pattern of abuse of the ethics process, which again often is seen in people who have tremendous amount of power in Washington. And the whole reason we have oversight here is so that there could be serious questions asked. And in fact, the last time the Ethics Committee was functioning and asked these questions, they said yes, something has gone wrong here. That was not a Democratic smear. That was a bipartisan Ethics Commission, and in fact, there was retaliation against him. Now, we have more allegations coming to light, and non-partisan groups such as Common Cause and a variety of other groups, Judicial Watch, other organizations coming forward and saying, you know, to have a faith in the elected members of the Congress, you have to have a strong process and be able to investigate these things, which I think bring up real questions, very close ties to this particular Republican administration, but real issues that have to be raised.

STEPHEN MOORE: You know, I certainly agree with Chellie that we need to put teeth back into the Ethics Committee, and you’re exactly right about that. As a Republican, I’m troubled by the fact that Republicans, as they have become settled in with power, they’re starting to reverse a lot of the Congressional reforms that they put in place in 1995, when they swept the Democrats out. So, that is troubling to me, but some of these allegations, I just think, are extremely unfair. I mean, to say that this was a golfing trip that he took to Scotland. I mean, there was business done on this trip. He did meet with foreign business leaders and so on, and he also —- you know, if you were to say, look, it’s a junket if you go play golf, you would have to evict two-thirds of the members of Congress, because that’s one of the things they do. Now, that may not be right, but it’s something that’s very commonplace in Congress. Another allegation -—

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Moore and Chellie Pingree, we have to break, but we’re going to come back to the other allegation you want to address. Stephen Moore is president of the Free Enterprise Fund. Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the controversy that is swirling around Tom DeLay. We are joined by the president of Common Cause, Chellie Pingree, as well as the president of the Free Enterprise Fund, Stephen Moore. We encourage folks to stay with us through this hour, as we also talk about Rachel Corrie, on the second anniversary of her death. Well, what about what is happening to the Ethics Committee right now? The House, facing new controversy around the travel of the Majority Leader, and other lawmakers left with no mechanism for investigating improper behavior by its members. When Democrats shut down the Ethics Committee by refusing to accept Republican rules changes that restrict the panel’s power. Stephen Moore?

STEPHEN MOORE: Well, as I said, I oppose those measures, although I think the Democrats have basically said, unless we get everything we want, we’re not going to have an Ethics Committee. That’s been part of the problem, too. So I think both sides share some blame here. But I wanted to just make this one other point about the unfairness of some of these allegations. One of the points that Chellie and others have been making about Tom DeLay is that he was taking gifts from lobbyists, and then he was voting in favor — and promoting the legislation that the lobbyists were in favor of. Well, look, this is something that happens every day. It would be like saying Ted Kennedy was guilty of some impropriety because he took money from labor unions and then voted for the labor union agenda. I think just the fact that somebody takes a contribution from a lobbyist and then supports that agenda does not necessarily mean that there was some sort of quid pro quo. I mean, Tom DeLay is a very good fund-raiser. I think that’s one of the reasons that Democrats have their claws out for him right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t it true that some Republicans are jumping ship, quite concerned. I mean, Tom DeLay wanted to change the rules around a — around someone who has a ranking position in the House, remaining in office even if they get indicted. Ultimately, the Republicans balked at this.

STEPHEN MOORE: Let me give you context to that, because I’m not really in favor of that. I do think if someone is indicted, they should give up their leadership position, but this is a special case where what’s happening in Texas right now is because of the redistricting that happened in Texas where Republicans picked up six additional seats, because they made the boundaries more competitive and fairer, quite frankly, there was a lot of anxiety and a lot of anger in Texas. What you have got in Texas is this special prosecutor, who I think is a rogue prosecutor, who is out to get DeLay, and there are a lot of people who are worried that he is going to just going to grandstand, indict DeLay, and then he would have to stand down as Majority Leader, and his political career would be ruined. So that’s the special circumstance where people just don’t have any trust and any confidence in the competence of this prosecutor in Texas.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, we should go back to that, because you know, the —

AMY GOODMAN: Chellie Pingree.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Yes, sorry. On the TRMPAC investigation, which is — again the Ethics Commission when it was functioning, the actual Ethics Committee decided to set aside any opinion on that until the investigation was completed, and you can argue whether or not that’s a partisan question, but the real issue is whether corporate money was taken and put into a state PAC and used for improper purposes. Again, it’s a little bit complicated about what it was actually used for, but there’s still serious questions being raised. There have been two indictments of close associates of Majority Leader DeLay, and that would be a serious violation of the law in Texas. So, there is an actual issue there, and again, even Republicans, as you mentioned, thought that this proposal to say that if you were a member of leadership, and you were indicted, you should be automatically allowed to hold your position, even Republicans backed down at the final hour when that was brought to light.

STEPHEN MOORE: You know, even if that one allegation were true, though, the Texas one that you are mentioning about TRMPAC, it’s important for people to understand, Tom DeLay was not even a trustee of that PAC. He was an advisor to the PAC. He did not raise money for the PAC. So even if every allegation was true about TRMPAC violating the law, which I think is questionable, why is Tom DeLay being held accountable for the actions of an organization that he didn’t even head?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Well, again, the courts will decide that, and an appropriate ethics process would decide that. I mean, I don’t think that organizations like ours are trying to sit here as judge and jury, but we’re just saying, without an appropriate process, you can’t even get to the bottom of those decisions.

STEPHEN MOORE: I agree with that, but here’s the thing. I mean, when you talk about process, how is it fair — I mean, right now, Tom DeLay is under fire from Democrats. There’s increasing pressure in the media for him to step down, and how is that a fair process? He has not been — none of these allegations have been proven yet. And he may have to step down simply because people are throwing flaming arrows at him.

CHELLIE PINGREE: In the political process, when you are an elected official, one, you are held to a somewhat higher standard.

STEPHEN MOORE: True.

CHELLIE PINGREE: It’s fine for you to say, oh, they all do this, they take the money, and then they vote in favor of their allies. Well, if there is a pattern of it, and if it’s sufficient enough, again, to have a commission like the Ethics Commission where members of your own party say, you know, these things look like inappropriate uses of your position, this is not just hearsay and allegation. This is — these are actual concrete examples that happened over and over again and enough to both draw questions in the minds of the public, and I think as we are seeing, even questions in the minds of the members of his own party, who are starting to say, you know, is this making us look bad when we are the people who need to have the faith of the public ...

STEPHEN MOORE: Certainly —

CHELLIE PINGREE: ... and run the Congress?

STEPHEN MOORE: Certainly, the Republicans want to get this off the front page. It’s not good headlines for the Republicans that all of these allegations are being made. I do think because of his conservatism, he is being especially prosecuted here, and also I think, who’s going to want to be in a leadership position in the future if you get that position, and people try to, you know, character assassinate you and destroy your reputation? That, I think, is what’s happening with Tom DeLay. I do think is he going to survive this. I think he’s going to come out stronger, and I think in a few years, he will be the Speaker of the House.

AMY GOODMAN: Chellie Pingree, final comment.

CHELLIE PINGREE: You can call it a character assassination, but again, you know, the ethics process has been one of the most important things we’ve had, and it’s worked against Democrats and Republicans. I mean, certainly, President Clinton, the use of the Lincoln bedroom, Jim Wright, Speaker of the House from Texas came under some of the same concerns. And the fact is we depend on this process to be fair. We need to have a functioning Ethics Commission.

STEPHEN MOORE: I’m in favor of that.

CHELLIE PINGREE: So, in fact, if none of these allegations are true, and they’re not proven in a criminal court, and the body itself decides that they’re not worthy of further concern, then the Speaker should — the Majority Leader should walk away with no tarnish.

AMY GOODMAN: The Ethics Committee is the only committee that is even Democrat and Republican, so it would take one Republican crossing over?

CHELLIE PINGREE: Absolutely, but as you recall, that’s what happened earlier. There was a bipartisan decision of the committee, but then Congressman Hefley, who was the chair of the commission, who has continued to speak out on the importance of having bipartisan ethics rules, he was removed as chair of the committee. So, again —

AMY GOODMAN: Removed by who?

CHELLIE PINGREE: By Speaker Hastert, who works very closely with Majority Leader DeLay. So it looks like that what you have got here is Republican leadership deciding to dismantle the entire process, and it feels like the fox guarding the henhouse.

AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Moore, do you think it was proper to remove him?

STEPHEN MOORE: You know, I don’t know. He was the only Republican who was publicly split. Out of 232 in the House, he was the only one who split with Tom DeLay publicly. So there was a lot of annoyance with him. But I will say this, you know, there is also a lot of anger on the Republican conservative side of the angle that all of the Democrats want to talk about for the last couple of weeks is Tom DeLay. They don’t — they have no agenda. They have no agenda on Social Security reform, they have no agenda on tax reform, they have no agenda on budget control, they have no agenda on tort reform. And so, this kind of obstructionist agenda that is holding up legislation in Congress is being exacerbated by all these allegations.

AMY GOODMAN: Though you yourself have said you are becoming increasingly concerned.

STEPHEN MOORE: Well, I’m only concerned about the fact that this — that every day the headlines are about Tom DeLay. I think The Washington Post and New York Times really are out to get DeLay, and sometimes when that happens, even if you are innocent, you know, there’s an old saying: where do you get your reputation back. Even if you are innocent, in this town, just being — having allegations against you can destroy you.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to say thank you very much. We are going to have to leave it there.

CHELLIE PINGREE: Thank you.

STEPHEN MOORE: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause and Stephen Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund.

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